For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Movie studios save the best for last, releasing potential award winners at the end of the year. An article in Psychology Today on behavioral decision-making explores this phenomenon:
Either movie executives know to release their “Oscar bait” films at the end of the year, or that those in charge of nominating films for awards tend to pick films that were released in the last few months of the year. Either way, movies that opened later in the year are overrepresented.
Book publishers, on the other hand, release very few books in December. Magazines and newspapers focus on year-end lists of top books, not reviews of new books. Holiday shoppers are looking for gift books they’ve heard about, not brand-new books by unknown authors. Booksellers can’t learn about new books during the Christmas rush. And no one has any time to read — they’re at the movies.
After New Year’s Day, bookstore shelves and tables will be stocked with shiny new hardcovers and paperbacks. Spend that gift card you just received on yourself — and even though all the diet books come out in January, don’t buy The Paleovedic Diet or The 17-Day Green Tea Diet. Buy yourself a book that will entertain, absorb, and enlighten you, and curl up with a cup of tea, green or not.
New in hardcover:
The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (1/5)
I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.
The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner (1/5)
Wow! I read this memoir about growing up in a polygamist Mormon doomsday cult in one day. The author is her mother’s fourth child and her father’s 39th. If you liked The Glass Castle, The Sound of Gravel is for you.
The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (1/12)
I dislike the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (1/12)
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge) is one of my favorite authors. Her new book tells the story of Lucy Barton, a young woman from an abusive and impoverished background who (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. The book, like Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, is very short, with no wasted words; it’s a novel that raises many questions and that I won’t soon forget.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (1/26)
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. I’ve read and enjoyed all of Benjamin’s biographical novels — The Swans of Fifth Avenue is my favorite.
The Road to Little Dribbling : More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (1/19)
Some of Bryson’s books are funnier than others, but they’re all amusing, informative, and worth reading. His latest is a follow-up to Notes from a Small Island, a view of Britain from an American expatriate’s perspective, which came out 20 years ago.
New in paperback:
Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova (1/5)
This could be Lisa Genova’s best novel yet. The story of a loving family in crisis, Inside the O’Briens focuses on Joe O’Brien, a tough Boston cop who is devastated when he learns that he is suffering from Huntington’s disease — and that his four children may have inherited the lethal gene from him.
The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor (1/5)
I couldn’t stop reading The Daylight Marriage — spent a Sunday reading it, with the New York Times remaining in its plastic wrapper until I finished. This novel about a broken marriage, one which was perhaps ill-fated from the beginning, is devastating. Think Gone Girl with real people you might know instead of psychopaths.
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton (1/5)
Readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing me rhapsodize about Scotton’s debut novel, one of my 2015 favorites. I’m thrilled that it’s out in paperback and will reach more readers.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (1/12)
Fuller’s eventful life continues to provide her with interesting and thought-provoking subject matter. In her latest memoir, the dissolution of her marriage causes her to face her past from a new vantage point.
Books on the Table wishes you a happy, healthy, and book-filled 2016!
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
In North America, today is the winter solstice, which means it’s the shortest day of the year. Here in Chicago, that means we will have only 9 hours and 7 minutes of daylight today. I plan to take full advantage of the dark and dreary weather, spending the longest evening of the year curled up with a good book — The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. I’m loving this book, and if I were making a list of my favorite books of 2015, it would be a contender.
Because I’ve talked about my favorite books so much already, I’m sharing some of my colleagues’ top picks. Collectively, our #1 choice was Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (Molly called it “my 2015 ‘Pulitzer'”), which is coming out in paperback on January 6.
Although several booksellers named five or six books as “favorites” — “I cannot possibly limit it further”, said one; “It’s funny how hard that question is to answer”, said another — I’m narrowing the list to one or two books each. I’ve included fiction, nonfiction, children’s and YA. Most of the books were published this year, but some are older books that we discovered in 2015.
Laura S. recommends Erik Larson’s latest, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, as well as Sophie Kinsella’s YA debut, Finding Audrey.
Diane‘s top choice for adults is A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age (Matt Richtel) –a book that I think everyone should read, along with Being Mortal (Atul Gawande). (For my review of A DeadlyWandering, click here.) For younger readers, Di’s favorite is The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin), a National Book Award finalist.
Ann P. loves a backlist title, Everything Beautiful Began After — Simon van Booy’s first novel.
For Susan R., along with Laura B. (one of our Penguin Random House reps) the choice was easy: an award-winner that has appeared on many “best of 2015” lists —H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. The New York Times called this memoir “breathtaking”.
Lisa’s pick is Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s last novel, which is also a book club favorite.
Diana can’t decide between one of this year’s hottest books — Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff) — and a modern classic, Stoner (John Williams), originally published in 1965 and re-released several years ago. Stoner — which is not about a pot-smoker, but a farm boy turned English professor (William Stoner, Ph.D.) — is “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”, according to the New Yorker. It’s a superb book — don’t miss it!
Susan P.‘s bookselling heart was touched by A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan’s wise and witty debut novel about a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, a soul-sucking company that seems determined to put independent bookstores out of business. (For my review, click here.)
Kathy P.‘s #1 book of 2015 is The Buried Giant. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, set in England’s mythical past, is “a rumination on memory, love and war worthy of a place among the greats” (The Guardian).
Anne H. (our Macmillan rep) had a hard time deciding — she said, “This is such a hard question! It makes me think I need to start keeping a list of books I read.” She settled on Jenny Lawson’s irreverent memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and Paul Murray’s satirical novel, The Mark and the Void. (Can you tell Anne has a good sense of humor?)
Molly says Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier (Michelle Cuevas) is the best middle grade book she’s read this year — “and maybe ever”. Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill is her nonfiction pick for the year.
Max loves Carrying Albert Home, the heartwarming, “semi-true” story of author Homer Hickam’s parents and their odyssey throughout the Southeast with their pet alligator. She was thrilled when Hickam stopped by Lake Forest Book Store to chat and sign books. (For my review, click here.)
Eleanor is a fan of The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain), the charming, romantic and very French tale of a lost handbag — and a perfect gift book for anyone with a tender heart.
Cathy S. (our HarperCollins rep) sent me the longest list of anyone, mentioning that “I also realize that I’ve read a lot of ‘older’ books like Lifeafter Life by Atkinson that I hadn’t had time to read before”. Cathy — who never steers me wrong — recommends The Wolf Border (Sarah Hall), and the fourth installment in Elena Ferrante”s Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child. (Countless other readers I trust have recommended this series as well.)
Nancy is a fan of A Tale for the Time Being (Cynthia Ozecki), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and a terrific book club choice.
From across the lake at The Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Michigan, Sue sends two favorites: Days of Awe (Lauren Fox) and The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah), two books I enjoyed very much as well. The Nightingale is a real departure for Hannah, and although it’s not as literary as All theLight We Cannot See, it’s a good choice for readers looking for another absorbing story about Nazi-occupied France.
And my favorite? It’s impossible to choose one, but if I had to pick the most unforgettable books I read this year, I’d choose A Little Life (Hanya Yanigahara) and Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). How about you?
So Gluck stretched the truth in the service of Santa Claus. Sometimes one had to take liberties with facts in order to get, and keep, people’s attention, he reasoned. What was Santa Claus if not a friendly deception invented to delight and encourage better behavior?
One Christmas Eve, journalist Alex Palmer discovered that his great-great-uncle, John Duval Gluck, Jr., was the founder of New York’s Santa Claus Association. For 15 years during the early 20th century, this charitable organization was responsible for fulfilling the wishes of thousands of New York children who sent letters to the North Pole. Palmer was dismayed to learn that Gluck wasn’t so much a philanthropist as he was a huckster, who lined his pockets with money from generous and trusting donors.
Palmer’s exhaustively researched book, The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in NewYork, is — as the title indicates — about more than Gluck’s nefarious activities. The book includes two linked narratives: a sympathetic and comprehensive chronicle of Gluck’s life and personality, showing the complex motivations for his self-aggrandizing and often dishonest activities, and an equally detailed account of the transformation of Christmas from a religious holiday into a cultural and commercial event.
A self-described “secret history sleuth”, Palmer is the author of two previous books, Weird-O-Pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facs About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things and Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature. For a writer oriented towards the quirky side of life, delving into the obscure story of New York’s “Santa Claus man” and his world was a fascinating project. Palmer’s research led him to previously unknown relatives. He says:
My search to uncover the true story of John Gluck took me to Georgia, Florida, Texas, and into hidden pockets of New York City. I spoke to relatives I hadn’t known existed and was lucky enough to meet them. My first big break came with I tracked down a distant cousin of mine . . . She recalled John fondly and offhandedly mentioned she may have some of his papers in storage somewhere. In fact, she discovered she had several storage boxes full of his stuff . . . a trove of John’s personal correspondence, official Santa Claus Association documents, and original Santa letters that served as the backbone of The Santa Claus Man.
Palmer also uncovered an FBI report on Gluck’s deceptive activities, documents about Supreme Court case Gluck fought against the Boy Scouts of America, and “lots more Santa letters”. Palmer says his investigation “revealed a man who yearned for escape from a mundane life, but lost his bearings once he broke free.” The book includes nearly 40 pages of endnotes and a bibliography, attesting to Palmer’s thorough exploration of his subject. (It also contains dozens of terrific vintage photos, including a sketch of Gluck’s proposed Santa Claus Building, intended to “blend spiritual ideals and consumerism into a true ‘Cathedral of Commerce'”.)
Sometimes Palmer’s enthusiasm for trivia overwhelms the reader, detracting from the narrative. It probably isn’t necessary to know, for example, that the nation’s first airmail delivery took place on September 23, 1911 in a Bieriot XI monoplane and included a sack of 640 letters and 1,280 postcards.
Palmer successfully places Gluck’s story in historical context. Publishers Weekly comments that:
Palmer deftly weaves in other cultural touchstones such as the genesis of the Boy Scouts, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the WWI Christmas Day armistice (in which opposing armies traded goods) to tell the larger story of America’s adoption and adaptation of Christmas that endures to this day.
The Boy Scouts are, in fact, integral to the story. In 1910, two Boy Scout organizations were formed in the United States: the Boy Scouts of America and the American Boy Scout (no “s”, peculiarly — and later to become the United States Boy Scout.) The groups differed in one significant way: members of the American Boy Scout carried guns. Many parents didn’t want their Boy Scouts armed, especially after one 12-year-old American Boy Scout shot and killed a 9-year-old boy. The “chief scout” of the American Boy Scout organization didn’t think that banning guns from his organization was the best way to ensure the group’s survival — instead, he decided, they would volunteer to help the Santa Claus Man.
If you’re looking for a sweet Christmas story, The Santa Claus Man probably isn’t what you have in mind — but history and true crime buffs will enjoy this offbeat tale of greed and good intentions.
Books make great gifts because they’re easy to wrap.
Two years ago, I wrote a post called 5 Books NOT to Give this Holiday Season. I listed the kinds of books that are most likely to be returned, and reminded shoppers not to inscribe books with heartfelt messages: “Dearest Lily, I hope you enjoy Little Women as much as I did when I was your age. Love, Aunt Ann.” Lily may want to exchange Little Women for #7 in the Zombie Vampires in Outer Space series, and that’s OK. You want her to have a book she’ll read rather than one she’ll use as a decorative object, right?
A friend was horrified last Christmas when her parents received a book about end-of-life issues. Books about death and dying don’t make the most cheerful holiday presents. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is one of my favorite books of 2015, but I’m not giving it to anyone as a gift. I don’t even like to give books that have the word “die” in them: 1000Places to See Before You Die; 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die; 100 Things Iowa State Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (no, I didn’t make that one up!).
This year, I’m taking a positive approach. Instead of telling you which books are bad gifts, I’ll suggest a few that might be good gifts. I say “might” because, of course, you’re taking a chance. Matching a book with a reader is mysterious alchemy — which brings me to another point. If you’re thinking of giving a book to someone who’s not a reader, be very careful. Make sure it’s a useful book rather than a reading book. Your interior designer sister, who loves shelter magazines, would probably appreciate Sharon Santoni’s lovely book, My Stylish French Girlfriends. Your law student brother, who’s buried in textbooks but enjoys cooking, might like the new Jacques Pepin cookbook, Heart and Soul in the Kitchen.
Every major publication, print and digital, publishes a list of the “best” books of the year. The Wall Street Journal creates a master list by compiling books cited on 12 year-end lists: “Best Books of 2015: The Best of the Best-of Lists”. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 Notable Books, and then follows that a week later with The 10 Best Books of 2015. These lists are interesting to read, but not necessarily helpful as gift giving guides. I don’t know about you, but there’s no one on my list who would appreciate The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural World (“Alexander von Humboldt may have been the pre-eminent scientist of his era, second in fame only to Napoleon, but outside his native Germany, his reputation has faded . . .). I’m sure that’s a worthy book, but my friends and family are more likely to receive Tim Federle’s new mixology book, Gone With the Gin: Cocktails With a Hollywood Twist. (We enjoyed Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With a Literary Twist.)
Here are a few ideas for gift books . . . just in case you haven’t finished your shopping. (Or maybe you deserve to buy yourself a book.) Several of these recommendations appear on 2015 “best books” lists, but I’ve tried to include others that have been overlooked. They may not be the “best”, whatever that means, but maybe they’ll be perfect for someone on your list.
For art aficionados:
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is a talented writer and photographer! She describes it as a “deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality (and the mortality of nature), intimate depictions of my husband and the indelible marks that slavery left on the world surrounding me.”
For Shakespeare lovers:
Still Time by Jean Hegland
A gorgeous novel about an aging professor, suffering from Alzheimer’s, whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him understand a world that is becoming more and more confusing. Like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Still Time is about a professor suffering from dementia — but it’s an entirely different, and I’d argue, a more subtle and thought-provoking novel.
Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas by Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim
Two Shakespeare scholars obviously had a blast putting together this collection of recipes for cocktails and appetizers. Every page contains fun and interesting Shakespeare trivia; reading this short book is a bartending course and Shakespeare seminar combined.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
First in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, The Gap of Time is a modern retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Brilliant and entertaining!
For readers like me who can’t get enough of little-known World War II history:
When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning
Between 1943 and 1947, the government distributed 120 million paperback books (called Armed Services Editions, or ASEs) to millions of United States servicemen. Manning’s stirring book illustrates the power these books had to combat Nazi propaganda, “soothe an aching heart, renew hope for the future, and provide a respite when there was no escape” and to “build a new literate middle class” after the war.
The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, The Hummingbird is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring.
For everyone who loved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (plus, no one dies in this one):
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
The clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.
For parents who’ve just survived their high school senior’s college application process:
The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make.
For everyone whose favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird:
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
The very first book I read in 2015 remains one of my favorites of the year. Harper Lee meets Pat Conroy in this coming of age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago.
For all the readers who cheered for the University of Washington crew in The Boys in the Boat:
The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway
Who can resist an underdog sports story? The “Three-Year Swim Club” was a group of poor Japanese-American children who started their swimming careers training in irrigation ditches in the 1930s and later became world champions. Checkoway focuses on the team’s innovative and inspirational coach, Soichi Sakomoto, an unsung hero whose accomplishments have gone relatively unnoticed.
Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder
A young female runner leaves her family farm and wins a gold medal at the 1928 Olympics. At the age of 104, wheelchair-bound and nearly blind and deaf, she returns to the farm with two young filmmakers. Actually . . . this is nothing like The Boys in the Boat; first of all, it’s fiction, and second, it’s achingly sad. But it is about the Olympics, and it is a great book!
For Ruth Reichl fans/literary foodies:
My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl
After Gourmet magazine folded, editor Ruth Reichl took comfort in the kitchen. Her new book chronicles her year of cooking and healing, with plenty of delicious recipes.
Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti
I loved every page of this book, which is like nothing else I’ve ever read — part memoir, part cookbook, and part literary criticism. The author is a butcher (!) and book lover, and the book contains 50 recipe, each inspired by a book that’s meaningful to her.
Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
The author set out to cook a recipe from every country in the world and blog about it — along the way, she made peace with her past and connected with the world around her. Reminiscent of Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, it’s a heartfelt, plainspoken chronicle of how food and cooking can heal damaged souls.
For teenagers who want to read adult books:
Where They Found Her by Amanda McCreight
Plot twists and red herrings abound in this novel of psychological suspense that takes place in a seemingly peaceful college town. YA readers will enjoy the fast pace, the 17-year-old narrator, and the campus setting.
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw The Half Brother covers familiar territory: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner
I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Perfect for fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — another great YA crossover.
For adults who want to read YA books:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.
And . . . three favorite 2015 books that haven’t received enough recognition:
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother.
The Listener by Rachel Basch
A psychologist, the widowed father of two grown daughters, treats a college student who is confused about his gender identity. He becomes romantically involved with the mother of this student — without knowing she is the mother of his patient. Complications ensue, involving his daughters and their shared past.
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
Walsh’s debut is suspenseful, sometimes almost unbearably so, but it’s more than a crime novel; it’s the story of an immature, self-centered boy who manages to become an adult with integrity.
Two favorite 2015 books that have received plenty of accolades:
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
This book will keep you up late at night, and it will break your heart. The writing is gorgeous, and the tragic story is perfectly constructed.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
In case you haven’t been sufficiently traumatized by Clegg’s novel . . . read A Little Life. The 700-page “epic American tragedy” covering 30 years in the lives of four college friends is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. You’ll never forget it.
What books are you giving this year? And which ones are you hoping to receive?
There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:
Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!
We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.
I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.
The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.
Almost Famous Womenautographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.
We Never Asked for Wingsautographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.
The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!
Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.
Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.
Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.
The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.
Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.
M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”
Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.
Tales of Accidental Geniusautographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)
A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.
New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)
An art whose limits depend on a moving image, mass audience, and industrial production is bound to differ from an art whose limits depend on language, a limited audience, and individual creation. In short, the filmed novel, in spite of certain resemblances, will inevitably become a different artistic entity from the novel on which it is based.
George Bluestone, Novels Into Film
Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.
I recently read an article in the website Wired provocatively titled “The Martian Proves Movies Are Now Better Than Their Books”. The piece was, as I expected, a tedious criticism of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel. The novel isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it’s an absorbing and original story that makes readers — even readers like me, who think they hate science fiction — care about Mark Watney, the character who is abandoned on Mars. According to Wired, “Freed of Watney’s long monologues and Weir’s deep explanations of botany and chemistry, the movie is far more agile than the book.”
Well, Wired, that’s a big difference between books and movies. Books rely on narration, monologues, and detailed explanations; movies depend on visual images. The movie of The Martian is certainly more “agile”, if that means compressing the story into 140 minutes of screen time.
Maybe what the Wired reviewer was trying to say is that The Martian is a 4-star movie, but only a 3-star book? The material, in his opinion, was better suited to a movie than it was to a book. I disagree — the “long monologues” that the reviewer disliked helped me understand Mark Watney’s personality, and care about his fate. The scientific information piqued my curiosity, even though I didn’t fully understand much of it.
What’s surprising is that The Martian is such an entertaining movie, since most of the time only Watney is on screen. In an NPR interview, Weir said, “Matt Damon just completely nails the character of Watney. He’s exactly the way I imagined him.” Watney’s humor, intelligence, and buoyant attitude came through beautifully in the movie. Weir also commented on the visual impact of the movie: “There are beautiful shots of Mars and Martian scenery and terrain. That’s something that’s really hard to convey in a book. There’s only so long you can describe scenery and landscape before the reader throws the book over his shoulder.”
For readers, it’s a real pleasure to see favorite books live a second life on the screen. It can be easy to find fault, especially when favorite scenes and characters are cut or altered, and sometimes the director’s entire vision seems wrong. (I’m thinking of the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina.) But readers need to remember that a faithful interpretation of a book often doesn’t make the best movie. It’s “better to take the spirit of a novel and work it into a new, original movie”, according to an Atlantic article on supposedly “unfilmable” books. Authors and filmmakers often agree that the goal of a successful movie adaptation is a movie that retains the spirit of the book. Director Ang Lee says, “Either you ruin a novel and make a great film, or you can be loyal to the book and make a bad movie.” Author David Mitchell adds, “Be careful . . . when a filmmaker says, ‘I won’t change a thing.'”
Some beloved books will never make it to the screen. The Catcher in the Rye is a case in point — despite the efforts of Hollywood producers (Samuel Goldwyn, Billy Wilder, John Cusack, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and more) — a movie has never been made. In a letter in which he refused to sell the movie rights, J.D. Salinger said, “The weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener.”
2015 has been a terrific year for movie adaptations of books. The day after Thanksgiving, we saw the movie version of a book I loved, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.It’s a jewel of a movie, and I highly recommend it. The story concerns a young Irish immigrant, Eilis, who comes to the United States in the 1950s. Horribly homesick at first, she falls in love and begins to make a life for herself. A tragedy calls her home to Ireland and she is torn between her two lives.
Colm Tóibín is thrilled with Brooklyn as a movie. He concurs with all the film critics who have commented on the performance of 21-year-old Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. Asked if Ronan portrays Eilis as he imagined her, Tóibín commented on her emotional authenticity:
She was able to move from looking satisfied or in control, to suddenly seeming to be about to lose control, or feeling very sad. She could let a cloud cross her face very, very quickly and easily and convincingly in a few seconds. The camera’s on her face quite a lot, and you see everything she’s feeling about leaving home, going away. She doesn’t have to speak; it’s there. If you’re a novelist, you can feel only jealousy toward it.
After I saw the movie, I tracked down my copy of Brooklyn (which came out in 2009). I had marked several passages I particularly liked, including this one, which is such a clear and beautiful evocation of homesickness:
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything… . Nothing here was part of her. It was false and empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.
I also recalled that the ending of the book was a little different from the ending of the movie. Novels, in Tóibín’s opinion, require a certain ambiguity that doesn’t work in films. The ending of the movie version of Brooklyn is more clear-cut and emotionally satisfying than the ending of the novel. Tóibín said:
There’s a moment toward the end of the movie in which much more emotion is released than I will ever allow to occur because I work with a sort of restraint, and I like endings where the reader just doesn’t know exactly what happens. In a movie, you make a different pact with the audience. You can’t just end a page before the real ending, which I think in a novel you can always do, and you almost must always do.
Earlier in 2015, I saw several excellent movie adaptations of favorite books — Still Alice, Testament of Youth, and Far From the Madding Crowd (which inspired me to reread the book). My son tells me that Room is excellent, but I got claustrophobia reading the book and I’m not sure if I can sit through the movie! Opening this month are two movies based on nonfiction books I loved — In the Heart of the Sea and The Big Short. And of course, I can’t wait to see Macbeth.
At least no American publisher has released a movie tie-in edition of Macbeth. (Sadly, Penguin released one in the U.K.: “Now a major motion picture . . .”). I’m not sure why publishers keep coming out with these movie tie-in editions, because readers hate them. We’ve had many customers choose to special-order a book with the original cover rather than buy the one with the movie tie-in cover we have in the store. Two years ago, The Week published an article called “The Great Gatsby and 7 Other Hideous Movie Tie-In Book Covers”. Some are worse than others, but I’ve seen very few that are improvements over the original covers.